Visitors to St. Augustine, Fla., will discover
what makes the country’s oldest city a
by Monica Reid Olson
It’s been 500 years since Juan Ponce de León set sail in search of the legendary fountain of youth, reaching the east coast of Florida on April 3, 1513. Naming the land “La Florida” for Spain, this new world of natural beauty proved vital for Spanish interests. More than 50 years later, Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez de Aviles founded St. Augustine (September 1565). It is the oldest continuously occupied European-established city and port in the continental United States.
Above: Beautiful Flagler College in downtown St. Augustine once was a hotel. It dates to 1887. St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & the Beaches Visitor and Convention Bureau photo
In Title: A festival re-enactor portrays a Spanish soldier. St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & the Beaches Visitor and Convention Bureau photos
Below: Aviles Street
Today, St. Augustine offers modern-day travelers an opportunity to discover a city that honors the past, yet continues to evolve. New attractions, an easy-to-navigate historical district, stunning Spanish-colonial architecture, and options for enjoying nature give visitors many ways to explore St. Augustine. Events planned this year for the 500th anniversary of Ponce de León’s landing add to the energy.
It’s a pirate’s life
Though it’s among the city’s newest attractions, the St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum fits the area like a sword in a scabbard. The museum is the passion of entrepreneur and owner Pat Croce, who in December 2010 opened the 4,589-square-foot attraction across the street from St. Augustine’s famous Castillo de San Marcos fort.
More than 800 authentic pirate artifacts are displayed, including what is said to be the world’s only surviving treasure chest, the original journal from Capt. William Kidd’s last voyage, and a black-and-white Jolly Roger flag from the mid-1800s (one of only three in existence). Interactive displays, including one that lets guests feel–and hear–what it’s like to fire a cannon, make the museum come alive. The exceptional Below Deck experience offers a chilling journey detailing the final battle and death of Blackbeard.
At press time, Croce was preparing to open another permanent attraction, The Colonial Quarter Museum. The two-acre living history attraction will feature exhibits, shows, taverns, restaurants, and more.
Enjoying St. Augustine’s other treasures is as easy as putting on a pair of comfortable shoes and heading out the door. The historical downtown area, anchored by the Plaza de La Constitucion, is filled with restaurants, boutiques, art galleries, and historical attractions that speak to the city’s essence.
It would make sense that the oldest city in the nation is home to the country’s oldest street. Aviles Street creates an authentic old-world ambience. Lined with shops and museums, the narrow brick street now boasts 19th–century lampposts, wooden benches, and planters bursting with flowers.
The beautifully imposing Flagler College is hard to miss during a downtown stroll. Built in 1887 by railroad magnate Henry Flagler, the Spanish Renaissance-style structure was originally the Hotel Ponce de León, a sparkling gem of the Gilded Age with 400 rooms, Tiffany stained-glass windows, and gold-leaf murals that helped turn St. Augustine into a tourist destination. Another Flagler masterpiece, the 1887 Lightner Museum, also was a former Flagler hotel, which attracted guests with its Turkish baths and huge indoor swimming pool in the secluded casino area. The Café Alcazar now occupies the pool’s deep end. Tiffany glassware and mechanical musical instruments are part of the Lightner’s collection.
More downtown explorations lead visitors to the Oldest Wooden School House, which dates to the early 1700s and was built when the Spanish flag still flew over St. Augustine. An animatronic schoolmaster and children tell about daily life at the school where period textbooks and cooking utensils also are displayed. Beyond the school building are gardens open for touring.
At the Oldest House Museum Complex, the González-Alvarez House sits as Florida’s oldest Spanish-colonial structure. Two museums join the house, which dates to the 1700s. The Manucy Museum puts the house into the context of St. Augustine’s history; the Page L. Edwards Gallery displays traveling exhibitions, as well as artifacts from the St. Augustine Historical Society’s collection.
Fun that’s all wet
St. Augustine sits along the Matanzas River, which is part of the Intracoastal Waterway. The saltwater estuary is home to natural wonders that bring the experience full circle.
St. Augustine Eco Tours take participants into the heart of nature inside the Guana, Tolomato, Matanzas National Estuary Research Reserve. Inside the 73,000-acre protected area, spoonbills and birds of prey hunt for food, manatees forage for sea grass, and dolphins leap out of the water in a playful dance.
With six public beaches to choose from, beach lovers can create their own water-filled fun. The beaches stretch for 42 miles, providing a great place for surfing or a quiet place to watch a sunrise. Of course, an outdoor dinner on the beach would bring the perfect ending to a day in St. Augustine.
Monica Reid Olson is Web editor of Home & Away magazine. She is based in Omaha, Neb.
Mar/Apr 2013 Issue
|BEFORE YOU GO
For more information, contact the St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & the Beaches Visitor and Convention Bureau at
(800) 653-2489 or
The 500th anniversary of Juan Ponce de León’s arrival on Florida’s east coast will be celebrated in 2013 with a variety of events across the state. The effort, Viva Florida 500, recognizes the many cultures that thrive throughout the state, and how that diversity impacted early state history. For more information, visit the Web site, www.fla500.com.
To visit St. Augustine, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides.
The question, where in Florida did Ponce come ashore, continues as a historical debate.
By Deborah Reinhardt
There’s no doubt that Juan Ponce de León arrived at Florida’s east coast in 1513, but where he might have landed is unclear. Some say the landing site was at Ponte Vedra Beach near St. Augustine, Fla., basing that argument on historical writings of Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas in 1601.
But other scholars and historians view Herrera’s work as having little credibility. So the search for truth continues.
Dr. Michael Gannon is a retired professor of Florida-Spanish history. In speaking to a Jacksonville audience last October about the 500th anniversary of Ponce de León’s arrival, Gannon shocked the crowd by stating that it’s quite possible the Spanish explorer landed near Melbourne Beach.
Samuel Lopez is president of the Royal Order of Don Juan Ponce de León Historical V Centennial Celebration Committee. His title is as large as the task before him: plan the 500th anniversary of Ponce de León’s arrival in Florida and set Melbourne Beach in Brevard County up as a historical tourism destination. Lopez has worked for 12 years to plan the event, as well as educate the public about Ponce de León’s landing site.
“The goal is to bring tourism into the area, including attracting travelers from Latin American countries,” Lopez said.
A weeklong anniversary celebration is set for March 28–April 7, and will be highlighted by a ribbon-cutting ceremony, gala banquet, re-enactments, and parade. And the site that’s the focus of attention is Ponce Landing Park in Melbourne Beach. Here, a new statue of Ponce de León will be unveiled, but future plans for the site include a multi-cultural/historical research center.
“We have the crown jewel (Ponce Landing) right here,” he said. “Information and dialogue are so important to history.”
For more information about visiting Melbourne, contact the Space Coast Office of Tourism at (877) 57-BEACH (572-3224) or www.visitspacecoast.com. For gala and event information, click on http://utbunitedthirdbridge.com.
St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & the Beaches Visitor and Convention Bureau photo